Michael Fassbender has had a good run of it these past few years. It's a hot streak (one which saw him the recipient of the "staggering honor" that was Playlist Man of the Year 2011) that looks set to continue with the Irish/German actor moving between critically adored arthouse films and broad-appeal tentpoles with ease, often for directors who he's impressed before. Obviously, right now he can be seen reuniting with "Hunger" and "Shame" director Steve McQueen on the Oscar-tipped "12 Years a Slave," while this week also seems him back with "Prometheus" helmer Ridley Scott in the Cormac McCarthy-penned "The Counselor." Next year will again see him do the indie/tentpole one-two in Lenny Abrahamson's "Frank" (the director previously cast Fassbender in a Mastercard commercial before either had made the real leap to features), before he returns as Magneto in "X-Men: Days of Future Past."
But what's perhaps even more impressive than the balancing act between large and small budgeted, high and low profiles movies, is the kind of roles that Fassbender seems attracted to, even now that he's a bona fide star and a box-office draw in his own right. As tempting and as available as the opportunities must be to him, he's not immediately going for hero roles or even the leading man part, and often seems content to play in support (as in 'Slave,' "Haywire," even "Jane Eyre") or as part of an ensemble ('X-Men: First Class," "Prometheus," "Inglourious Basterds"). Despite the steely good looks and a fanbase fully prepared to drool at his dreaminess, Fassbender's attracted to complex, flawed, interesting characters, and if that means he often gets only a share of the spotlight, then so be it. It's this trait, more than anything else that makes his name in the credits such a reliable mark of quality over the last few years, and long may it continue.
But everybody has to come from somewhere and just as it seems kind of incredible that such a respected "serious" actor might have been at one time merely another set of rippling abs in Zack Snyder's "300," there are other films in Fassbender's back catalogue that aren't necessarily topmost in the mind when we think about his career. In some cases that's simply because of their small-scale nature, while in others it may be because they're plain bad. But seeing as there's little fun in running over the well-trodden ground of his best-known films, here are five Michael Fassbender movies that, for better or worse, you might not have seen.
Well, this is a peculiar film. Directed by François Ozon, based on a book by British novelist Elizabeth Taylor, this English-language costume drama was Fassbender’s first post-“300” big-screen role, and his character as the tortured, brooding, handsome object of the heroine’s affections, somewhat prefigures his turn as Mr. Rochester in Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre.” But it’s pretty much right there that the similarities end, as Ozon’s film is a horse of a very different color, a lush, overblown melodrama that occasionally unsheathes its satirical claws, but not frequently enough to ever feel like it’s making a real point. Introduced by sickly decorative pink titles, the film follows an admirably unlikable heroine, Angel (Romola Garai), the precocious daughter of a grocer who is convinced her blazing talent will make her a famous novelist but treats her long-suffering mother and everyone else in her provincial town with deep contempt. While still very young, however, she gets her first novel published by kindly, paternal Theo (Sam Neill), and it is indeed a roaring success (if not with critics). She duly does attain all the wealth and fame of which she’d dreamt, along the way falling hard for Esme (Fassbender), the brother of her devoted secretary Nora. At first glance it might seem a strange choice, certainly for Ozon, but for anyone interested in authors, authorship and inspiration, Angel is a fascinating character because, though successful, her novels are trash and she is primpingly deluded as to her talents. Fassbender's Esme too is “creative,” a painter arrogantly certain of his own misunderstood genius while churning out dull daubs for which no one but Angel, lit by her total adoration, has any time. The relationship between these two and between them and their capricious muses forms a nexus of odd fascination in the middle of what is otherwise a fairly straightforward corset opera. As time passes and Angel’s rise to grandeur is almost too meteoric for belief, at times playing out against what must be (it was only 2007 after all) deliberately obvious back-projections, we start to wonder if what we’re watching is real at all, or just the product of her fevered imagination. But the film just doesn’t give us enough to go on to keep us interested in second guessing that point, instead getting bogged down in a war/pacifism subplot, Esme’s infidelity and Angel’s miscarriage; it all gets very “Gone With the Wind,” and not in a good way. Fassbender’s role isn’t huge and some of his character’s zigzags do lend weight to the idea that he is, at least partially, a projection of Angel’s/the film’s torrid imaginings, but even in what’s pretty much a supporting role he brings that flinty handsomeness and suggestion of secrecy that makes Angel, and everyone in the world since about 2008, swoon. However it feels like Ozon overall can’t make up his mind if he’s making a full-on lurid melodrama, or something that metatextually comments on lurid melodramas, and so we end up with a film that tries to be a cake, and eat it too. [C]
"Eden Lake" (2008)
There's a uniquely British horror subgenre known as "hoodie horror." In this subgenre, exemplified by things like the Michael Caine revenge thriller "Harry Browne" and the dull-as-dishwater Irish horror flick "Citadel," very nice adults are menaced by very mean children, usually wearing hooded sweatshirts. (This style of dress makes British people incredibly nervous.) "Eden Lake" is one of these movies, which is even drearier than most of its contemporaries. In the film Kelly Reilly plays a schoolteacher who travels to the remote English countryside for a vacation (or, if you're British, "a holiday") with her boyfriend (Fassbender). Initially, they're simply annoyed by a small gang of punk kids who are blasting their hip-hop music and generally acting like dicks. But then their tomfoolery becomes more menacing and, after an altercation ends with the kids' dog getting killed, things take a turn for the worse. Fassbender's role is largely thankless and he looks so young, with an undeveloped physique and bad skin, that it's sometimes hard to differentiate between him and the killer kids. The actor does get one big, truly wonderful moment, though when, after he's been stabbed multiple times by the kids and generally abused, he explains to Reilly what kind of wedding they would have had, had he been able to propose on the vacation like he had originally intended. In between gasps, his multiple wounds oozing wildly, he tells Reilly that he would have taken her to Africa for the wedding. "I even talked to your old man," he wheezes. What's even worse is that he doesn't even get to die immediately after. Instead, Reilly gets to watch as he's lit on fire right beside her. The last half hour of "Eden Lake" is entirely Fassbender-free and even uglier and more grueling (she's a school teacher! And now she's killing little kids! Ah the irony!). "Eden Lake" is a place that you should never, ever want to visit. [C-]